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Chapter 25

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« on: January 30, 2023, 07:12:40 am »

JOE Leaver, worn out after nearly a week's work of watching the movements of Mr. Holymead, had fallen asleep in an empty loft above a garage which overlooked Verney's Hotel in Mayfair. He had seen Mr. Holymead disappear into the hotel, and he knew from the experience gained in his watch that the K.C. would spend the next couple of hours in dressing for dinner, sitting down to that meal, and smoking a cigar in the lounge. So Joe had relaxed, for the time being, the new task which his master had set him, and had flung himself on some straw in the loft to rest. He did not intend to go to sleep, but he was very tired, and in a few minutes he was in a profound slumber.

In his sleep Joe dreamed that he had attained the summit of his ambition, and was being paid a huge salary by an American film company to display himself in emotional dramas for the educational improvement of the British working classes. In his dream he had to rescue the heroine from the clutches of the villains who had carried her off. They had imprisoned her at the top of a "skyscraper" building and locked the lift, but Joe climbed the fire escape and caught the beautiful girl in his arms. The villains, who were on the watch, set fire to the building, and when Joe attempted to climb out of the window with the heroine clinging round his neck, the flames drove him back. As he stood there the wind swept a sheet of flame towards Joe until it scorched his face. The pain was so real that Joe opened his eyes and sprang up with a cry.

A man was standing over him, a man past middle age, short and broad in figure, whose clean-shaven face directed attention to his protruding jaw. He was wearing a blue serge suit which had seen much use.

"You are a sound sleeper, sonny," said the man, grinning at Joe's alarm. "But when you wake—why you wake up properly; I'll say that for you. You nearly broke my pipe, you woke up that sudden."

He made this remark with such a malicious grin that Joe, whose face was still smarting, had no hesitation in connecting his sudden awakening with the hot bowl of the man's pipe. It was a joke Joe had often seen played on drunken men in Islington public-houses in his young days.

"You just leave me alone, will you?" he said, rubbing his cheek ruefully. "It's nothing to do with you whether I'm a sound sleeper or not."

"That's just where you're wrong, young fellow," was the reply. "It's a lot to do with me. Ain't your name Joe Leaver?"

Joe nodded his head.

"How did you find out?" he asked.

"Perhaps a friend of mine pointed you out to me."

"Perhaps he did, and perhaps he didn't," said Joe. "Anyway, what is your name?"

"Mr. Kemp is my name, my boy. And unless you're pretty civil I'll give you cause to remember it."

"What have you got to do with me?" asked the boy in an injured tone. "I've never done nothing to you."

"You mind your P's and Q's and me and you'll get along all right," said Mr. Kemp, in a somewhat softer tone. "When you ask me what I've got to do with you, my answer is I've got a lot to do with you, for I'm your guardian, so to speak."

Joe looked at Mr. Kemp with a gleam of comprehension in his amazement. He had had some experience in his Islington days of the strange phenomena produced by drink.

"Rats!" he retorted rudely. "I've never had a guardian and I don't want none. What made you a guardian, I'd like to know?"

"Your father did," was the reply.

"Oh, him!" said Joe, in a tone which indicated pronounced antipathy to his parent. "Do you know him? Are you one of his sort?"

"Now don't try to be insulting, my boy, or I'll take you across my knee. We won't say nothing about where your father is, because in high society Wormwood Scrubbs isn't mentioned. All we'll say is that he has been unfortunate like many another man before him, and that for the present he can't come and go as he likes. But he has still got a father's heart, Joe, and there are times when he worries about his family and about there being no one with them to keep an eye on them and see they grow up a credit to him. He has been particularly worried about you, Joe. So when I was coming away he asked me to look you up if I had time, and let him know how you was getting on, seeing that none of his family has gone near him for a matter of three years or so, though there is one regular visiting day each week."

"I don't want to see him no more," said Joe. "He's no good."

"That's a nice way for a boy to talk about his own father," said Mr. Kemp, in a reproving tone. "I don't know what the young generation is coming to."

"If you want to send him word about me, you can tell him that I'm not going to be a thief," said Joe defiantly.

"No," said Mr. Kemp tauntingly, "you'd sooner be a nark."

"Yes, I would," said the boy.

"And that's what you are now," declared the man wrathfully. "You're a nark for that fellow Crewe. I know all about you."

"I'm earning an honest living," said Joe.

"As a nark," said Mr. Kemp, with a sneer.

"I'm earning an honest living," said the boy doggedly. So much of his youth had been spent among the criminal classes that he still retained the feeling that there was an indelible stigma attached to those individuals described as narks.

"How can any one earn a respectable honest living by being a nark?" asked Mr. Kemp contemptuously. "And more than that, it's one of the best men that ever breathed that you are a-spying on. I'll have you know that he's a friend of mine. That is to say he's done things for me that I ain't likely to forget. There's nothing I won't do for him, if the chance comes my way. I'll see that no harm happens to him through you and your Mr. Crewe. You've got to stop this here spying. Stop it at once, do you understand? For if you don't, by God, I'll deal with you so that you'll do no more spying in this world! And I'd have you and your master know that I'm a man what means what he says." Mr. Kemp shook his fist angrily at Joe as he moved away to the door of the loft after having delivered his menacing warning. "My last words to you is, Stop it!" he said, as he turned to go down the stairs.

Half an hour later Mr. Kemp entered the lounge of Verney's Hotel as though in quest of some one. Most of the hotel guests had finished their after-dinner coffee and liqueurs, and the hall was comparatively empty, but a few who remained raised their eyes in well-bred protest at the intrusion of a member of the lower orders into the corridor of an exclusive hotel. Mr. Kemp felt somewhat out of place, and he stared about the luxuriously furnished lounge with a look in which awe mingled with admiration. Before he could advance further, a liveried porter of massive proportions came up to him and barred the way.

"Now, now, my man," said the porter haughtily, "what do you think you are doing here? This ain't your place, you know. You've made a mistake. Out you go."

"I want to see Mr. Holymead," said Mr. Kemp in a gruff voice.

Verney's was such a high-class hotel that seedy-looking persons seldom dared to put a foot within the palatial entrance. The porter, unused to dealing with the obtrusive impecunious type to which he believed Mr. Kemp to belong, made the mistake of trying to argue with him.

"Want to see Mr. Holymead?" he repeated. "How do you know he's here? Who told you? What do you want to see him for?"

"What's that got to do with you?" retorted Mr. Kemp. "You don't think Mr. Holymead would like me to discuss his business with the likes of you? That ain't what you're here for. You go and tell Mr. Holymead that some one wants to see him. Tell him Mr. Kemp wants to see him." Mr. Kemp drew himself up and buttoned the coat of his faded serge suit.

The porter, uncertain how to deal with the situation, looked around for help. The manager of the hotel emerged from the booking office at that moment, and the porter's appealing look was seen by him. The manager approached. He was faultlessly attired, suave in demeanour, and walked with a noiseless step, despite his tendency to corpulence. It was his daily task to wrestle with some of the manifold difficulties arising out of the eccentricities of human nature as exhibited by a constant stream of arriving and departing guests. But though he approached the distressed porter with full confidence in his ability to deal with any situation, his eyebrows arched in astonishment as he took in the full details of the intruder's attire.

"What does this mean, Hawkins?" he exclaimed, in a tone of disapproval.

The porter trembled at the implication that he had grievously failed in his duty by allowing such an individual as Mr. Kemp to get so far within the exclusive portals of Verney's, and in his nervousness he relaxed from the polish of the hotel porter to his native cockney.

"This 'ere party says 'e wants to see Mr. Holymead, Sir."

The manager went through the motion of washing a spotlessly clean pair of hands, and then brought the palms together in a gentle clap. He smiled pityingly at Hawkins and then looked condescendingly at Mr. Kemp.

"Wants to see Mr. Holymead, does he?" he said, transferring his glance to the worried porter. "And didn't you tell him that Mr. Holymead has gone to the theatre and won't be back for some considerable time?"

"That's a lie!" said Mr. Kemp, who had acquired none of the art of dealing with his fellow men, and was too uneducated to appreciate art in any form. "I've been watching over the other side of the street, and I saw him passing a window not ten minutes ago. I'm going to see him if I wait here all night. I'll soon make meself comfortable on one of them big chairs." He pointed to an empty chair beside a man in evening dress, who was holding a conversation with a haughty looking matron. "You tell Mr. Holymead Mr. Kemp wants to see him," he said to the manager.

"What name did you say?" asked the manager in a tone which seemed to express astonishment that the lower orders had names.

"Mr. Kemp. You tell him Mr. Kemp wants to see him on important business." He walked towards the vacant chair and seated himself on it. He dug his toes into the velvet pile carpet with the air of a man who was trying to take anchor. Fortunately the man on the adjoining chair, and the haughty matron, were so engrossed in their conversation that they did not notice that the air in their immediate vicinity was being polluted by the presence of a man in shabby clothes and heavy boots.

The manager despatched the porter in search of Mr. Holymead and then went in pursuit of Mr. Kemp.

"Will you come this way, if you please, Mr. Kemp?" he said, with a low bow.

He saw that Mr. Kemp was following him and led the way into an unfrequented corner of the smoking room, where, with the information that Mr. Holymead would come to him in a few moments, he asked Mr. Kemp to be seated.

The manager withdrew a few yards, and then took up a position which enabled him to guard the hotel guests from having their digestions interfered with by the contaminating spectacle of a seedy man. To the manager's great relief, Mr. Holymead appeared, having been informed by the hall porter that a party who said his name was Kemp had asked to see him. The manager hurried towards Mr. Holymead and endeavoured to explain and apologise, but the K.C. assured him that there was nothing to apologise for. He went over to the corner of the smoking room, where the visitor who had caused so much perturbation was waiting for him.

"Well, Kemp, what do you want?" There was nothing in his manner to indicate that he was put out by Mr. Kemp's appearance. He spoke in quiet even tones such as would seem to suggest that he was well acquainted with his visitor.

"Can I speak to you on the quiet for a moment, sir?" whispered Kemp hoarsely.

Holymead looked round the room. The manager had gone back to the booking office and Hawkins had vanished. The few people who were in the room seemed occupied with their own affairs.

"No one will overhear us if we speak quietly," he said as he took a seat close to Kemp. "What is it?"

"You're watched and followed, sir," said Kemp in a whisper. "Somebody has been watching this place for days past and whenever you go out you're followed."

"By whom?" asked Holymead.

"By a varmint of a boy—a slippery young imp whose father's in gaol for a long stretch. I got hold of him this afternoon and told him what I'd do to him if he kept on with his game. He's living in an old loft at the back of the hotel garage, and he keeps a watch on you day and night. I thought I'd better come here and tell you, as you mightn't know about him."

"You did quite right, Kemp. What's this boy like?"

"An undersized putty-faced brat with a big head. He's about fourteen or fifteen, I should say."

"Who is he? Do you know him?"

"Leaver is the name, sir. To tell you the truth, I don't know him as well as I know his father. His father is a 'lifer' for manslaughter. I've known him both in and out of gaol. And when I was coming out four months ago Bob Leaver, this here boy's father, asked me to look up his family and send him word about them. I went to the address Bob told me, in Islington, but I found they had all gone. The mother was dead and the kids—a girl and this here boy—had cleared out. The old Jew who had the second-hand clothes shop Mrs. Leaver used to keep told me that the boy had gone off with that private detective, Crewe, more than two years ago. So it looks to me as if he has turned nark and Crewe has put him on to watch you."

"Can you describe this boy more closely?"

"Well, sir, I don't know if I can say anything more about him except that he has red hair and big bright eyes that are too large for his face."

"I thought so," said Holymead as if speaking to himself. "It's the same boy."

"What did you say, sir?" asked Kemp.

"Nothing, Kemp, except that I think I've seen a boy of this description hanging about the street near the hotel."

Holymead rose to his feet as he spoke, as an indication that the interview was at an end. Kemp got up and looked at him anxiously.

"I beg your pardon, sir, for coming here," he said, fumbling with the rim of his hat as he spoke. "I didn't know how you'd take it, but I hope I've done right. They didn't want to let me see you."

"You did quite right, Kemp. I am very much obliged to you." He was feeling in his pocket for silver, but Kemp stopped him.

"No, no, sir. I don't want to be paid anything. I wanted to oblige you like; I wanted to do you a good turn. I'd do anything for you, sir—you know I would."

"I believe you would, Kemp. Good night."

"Good night, sir."

As Kemp passed down the hall he met the manager, who was obviously pleased to see such an unwelcome visitor making his departure. Kemp scowled at the manager as if he were a valued patron of the hotel and said, "It seems to me that you don't know how to treat people properly when they come here."

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